Developer Session: We Chat to Nifflas About His Knytt Underground Vision
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
"I would say it’s a beautiful, slow-paced experience, very ambient."
We've emphasized in recent times that there are a good number of intriguing download-only titles coming to the Wii U eShop, bringing a variety of experiences to the fore. One that could be particularly involving and complex for players to tackle may be Knytt Underground, a title that's previous graced PC, Mac, PS3 and Vita, and arrives on the Wii U with all of the content that's been seen on PC, in particular.
The timed demo build that we've played so far makes it tough to pass detailed judgement, as it enforces a strict playtime of around 10 minutes. It is immediately clear that this title aims for a fairly cerebral experience in which the player sets the tempo, with exploration absolutely key.
We sat down for a chat with the game's creator Nifflas (full name Nicklas Nygren) and Phil Gaskell (of the game's publisher Ripstone) to discuss a variety of topics, and in this first of two parts covering that interview we talk about the game in detail to learn more about the concept.
First of all, for those attempting to correctly pronounce the name, it's 'k-nitt', though Nifflas admits he's "not very sensitive about how people say it", as evidenced by the name choice itself. Moving beyond that relative frivolity, it was explained that the original idea was formed from a combination of early projects, tying environments and concepts together into a whole.
I think it started out three years ago, when I had this idea that I wanted to try and combine one of my old games, Within a Deep Forest, plus this bouncing ball, with the mechanics of the Knytt game where you can run around and climb walls. It started out as a really small prototype where I just tried to combine these two movements and realised that it was very funny; I liked the fast-paced way you could move around and transfer back and forth. Somehow from there I started to develop different rooms and levels.
Although Gaskell, as part of the company publishing and publicising the game, is expected to wax lyrical, there's an authentic knowledge and passion about the game when he pitches in, perhaps explaining why Nifflas opted to work with Ripstone in the first place. It seems to be a relationship of mutual respect and understanding, with Gaskell being immediately impressed by early videos that were pitched. "When I saw the videos that Nicklas brought to us — very hypnotic, lovely photographic backgrounds, its really eery soundtrack, it all came together", he explained. "I love games that are great to watch, not just play; it was really evident to me just seeing everyone playing the demo, people were entranced watching others play — it’s quite hypnotic and zen-like. It was an easy game for us to get behind."
It's clear that the creation of the world and its inhabitants is a deeply personal part of the process for Nifflas. Producing environments for a game is always a integral, of course, but when speaking about the underground world that forms the setting it becomes clear that it's more than an enabler to bring together mechanics and puzzles, but vital to the message the experience tries to represent. When asked about the setting and its importance, Nifflas gives us a detailed outline that hints and the degree of planning and thought behind its formation.
So it’s set in underground tunnels, and all the creatures that live there refer to the surface as this dangerous place where nobody ever goes. So for some reason all life has moved underground into tunnels, and is even figuring out how to plant stuff down there. Hm… yeah, it’s no big spoiler to say that humans have something to do with what happened up there.
Either way there are now these other creatures that live underground and try to… I guess like the way we try to look to the past to understand ourselves, and define ourselves with religions connected to things that happened thousands of years ago. The creatures in this game try to understand themselves through looking at us, trying to understand what our society was like. But they’re not very good at it, they make very weird conclusions, and so when you see them talking about humans in the game or using human terms, they’re using them wrong.
So when they talk about the internet, you have to learn about what the internet even means in the context of this underground world. So in this world the main character is a sprite, which is kind of human-ish / animal-ish small creature that… yeah she’s sent on this mission to do this weird religious ritual, which is according to a religious group supposed to save the world. Even though that’s not very convincing, as they seem to be mostly based on superstitious nonsense.
The game doesn’t tell you how things are, so you have to decide as the player what it actually means. Does it mean I’m saving the world or just upholding a superstitious tradition? I also try to throw quests at the player that are all about giving you two perspectives without telling you which one is right.
As Gaskell goes on to expand, the initial two chapters set the scene before the main body of the game begins, tasking you to "ring the six bells of fate...and see if it’s superstitious nonsense or if you have really have saved the world." And it's a big world, perhaps dauntingly so. Nifflas explains that Chapters 1 and 2 can probably be beaten in an hour or two each, yet chapter 3 is "ten times bigger". The scale sounds intimidating, especially for completionists that pride themselves on finding all hidden secrets; the world consists of "about 1400 rooms in the main game, there are about 700 rooms with secrets outside the regular map".
It may sound like a sprawling environment to deter the most intrepid explorer, but the developer and publisher were united in their belief that the environment, mechanics and sense of intrigue will drive players through to the endgame. "It’s one of those games where you pick it up and think 'I’ll spend an hour in this', and you just find yourself getting lost", Gaskell explains. "You decide 'I’m just going to explore this part of the map', and 4-5 hours later you realise you haven’t rung a single bell or done many missions, but you’ve opened up all these rooms, so you keep coming back to it to open up more of the map. Now and again you might say 'I’ll just ring / find that bell', but it’s great, you just dip in and out of it." Nifflas also stated that a sense of momentum should be achieved when playing, as not every room is packed with challenges.
I also make sure to not put challenges in every room, because then it’s annoying if you think “I just beat this one and now there’s another”. So, I always make sure to have plenty of areas where there’s just stuff to look at.
Traversing the worlds makes use of various movements and abilities. The main options of running, jumping and turning into a ball are vital, which when used properly can be creative moves in themselves, but special power-ups also shake up the formula. They're designed with small timescales and local areas in mind. "So you can pick up a power-up that’s gives you 15 seconds to activate it, within that timeframe some fly you straight up, there’s a double jump, and there’s one that lets you fly in any direction", Nifflas explained. "The way I try to place them is so they can add something… usually in a puzzle you have to use your two forms together, so for example if I have a yellow power which flies straight up, you can have a puzzle where you have to fly up to the roof and, when as high up as possible, you transform into the ball so you can bounce with the ball and catch something on the way to bring up with you."
Stacking powers will also be integral to reaching some areas or conquering trickier puzzles, such as timing the usage of a power to capture a freshly spawned extra, which can give a double use of the same power. It sounds tricky, but "you have to figure these hacks out to get to the secrets."
As for the Wii U version's benefits, one of these will be that it'll be "the best looking console version out there", according to Gaskell, while off-TV play and some uses of the inventory on the GamePad are planned. For his part, Nifflas is keen to "explore the Wii U’s capabilities more in the future", while citing gameplay ideas such as those of asynchronous multiplayer in Nintendo Land as concepts that have impressed him. Nintendo's system will also have the Infinity Hype content, which provides extras of an experimental nature. In fact, based on the description we were given, they may be quite unlike anything else on the platform to date.
It’s more stuff outside, more experimental stuff. For example there’s one section that’s like a techno-music area, that’s like this neon-coloured place where you basically have to just listen to the music, and there’s a really difficult challenge; everything syncs to the music.
Then there’s this other thing… I had a Reddit ‘ask me anything’ where people could ask the characters in my game questions, and I created a small story where I answer those questions in the game itself. Whoever asked the question shows up and the game answers the question with a little playable story.
If it's not clear already, Nifflas is a game creator with plenty of ideas and, it seems, conviction in delivering those concepts through his games. Even in our brief time with the game we saw plenty of shifts in background and ambience delivered through the visuals and music, with both seeming like important aspects. It's all part of a sustained drive to keep the gamer engaged in the experience.
I think it’s a key part. I’ve always been really into atmospheric stuff, like before I made games I made a lot of music. So when I started making games I already had this background with music software, so for that reason it was one of the most important aspects. When designing a very big game world, there’s this thing that if all the areas look the same it becomes very boring, there’s no reason to explore. One of the most important things about exploring a world, to me, is that every area is something new and something different from others, which is not something I mainly achieve through challenges or enemies, but to me making sure it sounds and feels different, and has different environments.
That’s so much more important, so a first priority for me is that no matter where you explore you see something new and something you like. I even spent quite a lot of work having creatures that just run around, and there’s one that just pops up from the ground and shoots a little bullet that bounces right off you; as soon as you turn around to look at the creature it just disappears into the ground.
There's no solid release date yet for Knytt Underground, with Gaskell making clear that the release will only happen when Nifflas is fully happy with the end result. What that end experience will be should perhaps be something to interest more adventurous Wii U owners, with Nifflas signing off with a summary that neatly outlines what we can expect; which is the unexpected.
I would say it’s a beautiful, slow-paced experience, very ambient. You just get to explore, and it’s a game that makes you think, that would be the pitch. Plus it’s about pulling off really crazy, cool moves. It’s both fast-paced and slow-paced at the same time, in a weird way, so you move around quickly and can get very skilled, but it also makes you stop to just look at stuff.
Check back this weekend when we'll publish the second part of this interview, focused on development philosophies and hinting at future projects.